Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Umstead South Circuit

Hike: Company Mill/Reedy Creek/Loblolly Circuit
Location: Umstead State Park
Nearby Town: Raleigh, NC
Elevation (Max): 400'
Elevation Gained: ~280'
Mileage: 5.2
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Trailhead: Take Exit 287 off I-40. Turn toward Umstead State Park (on the R exiting from I-40 W, on the L if exiting I-40 E) and follow the road until you reach the parking lot. The trial leaves out of the back left corner (behind the pavilion) from the perspective of the parking lot entrance. Same trailhead as the Company Mill Loop hike.
Web Site: http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/wium/main.php

On a pleasantly warm January day, I headed out to Umstead State Park to go on my first hike in a while. I felt energized by the sunny, warm day in the middle of January, so I planned on doing a longish circuit of the Company Mill, Reedy Creek, and Loblolly Trails. I began on Company Mill Trail, which I've become pretty familiar with by now, and if I had to guess, I'd say it is the most popular trail in the park. Immediately the trail descends to a small stream, then rises and falls for a while until descending down to Crabtree Creek at the site of the old Company Mill dam. Cross the bridge to the other side and turn right. At this junction, if you plan on doing the Company Mill loop, you can go either left or right and you eventually return from the other direction (as E and I did here) but this circuit only uses one half of Company Mill so go right along Crabtree Creek. When I went, Crabtree was pretty swollen and there were plenty of rapids around the dam.

Crabtree Creek from the bridge

I followed the trail along the bank of the Creek for a while before it peeled away up into the woods and past enormous loblollies. The trail then ascends somewhat steeply to its highest point on a quartz covered hill before descending a bit to the junction with Reedy Creek Rd. At this point the Company Mill loop continues ahead, but for this circuit, turn right. Walk along the bridle trail for a while (you will likely encounter many mountain bikers) before it descends a long hill to Crabtree Creek and shortly from there, Reedy Creek Lake. You can take a quick detour to check out the lake (artificially formed by a dam), or if you feel like a shorter hike, you can take the path across the Reedy Creek dam, which will eventually lead to a paved road onto which you should turn left, then follow the road until the Loblolly Trail intersects it, at which point you should turn right to return to the parking lot.

Crabtree flowing through a breach in the old dam

For the full circuit, though, return to Reedy Creek Road and continue onward up the hill rising from the Lake. As the trail flattens and straightens out, be on the lookout for the junction with the Loblolly Trail on the right. The Loblolly trail has the roughest terrain on the circuit with narrow trails, multiple switchbacks and lots of tree roots (it is by no means excessively difficult, but it is quite a difference from Reedy Creek Road). The trail winds its way through the forest up and down small hills, crosses Reedy Creek, then climbs out of the gully and soon reaches a paved road. Cross the road, continue onward, and only a short walk remains to the parking lot. GPS track of the route below.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Graveyard Fields

Hike: Graveyard Fields Loop
Location: Blue Ridge Parkway--Pisgah National Forest
Nearby Town: Waynesville to the NW or Brevard to the SE. About 50 minutes from Asheville
Elevation (Max): 5,120'
Elevation Gained: ~200'
Mileage: 2.5
Difficulty: Easy
Trailhead: Around milepost 418 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The trailhead is on the right at the back of the overlook parking lot.
Web Site: http://www.hikewnc.info/trailheads/pisgah/pisgah/graveyard.html, http://www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm

In late September, E and I decided that we had waited long enough to tackle one of the trademark North Carolina experiences--going to the mountains. So, we planned to drive out to Asheville, stay overnight there, then drive into Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hike Mount Sterling. Well, our drive out to Asheville was soaked by rain. When we arrived, the clouds parted briefly and we walked around downtown a bit before stopping in at the Early Girl Eatery for a delicious dinner. However, while we were eating, the rain picked back up and we made our dash to the car and drive back to the hotel in some of the heaviest rain I have ever seen. The next morning was not much better. Things were wet and it was sprinkling on and off. We checked out the weather forecast and radar and decided to nix the Mount Sterling hike since we would likely get soaked. We decided, instead, to explore Biltmore Village in Asheville a bit, then we figured a good way to spend our day, since our next night's hotel was in Waynesville, would be to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) to get there. As we began the drive the rain held off, but we remained socked in under thick clouds. We pulled off at many overlooks but the views were mostly non-existent due to the cloud cover. At milepost 418, though, we found a real gem--Graveyard Fields.

There are a couple of explanations for Graveyard Fields' name. The natural explanation is that a windstorm blew down many of the big trees, and their upturned roots made the field look like a graveyard. The man-made explanation is that heavy logging that left only the stumps of trees scattered in the field resembled a graveyard. Either way, the stumps are long gone and the place no longer resembles a graveyard, but in fact, is amazingly beautiful. Initially, we only intended to check the place out from the overlook, having no idea what treasures lay in store along the BRP since this was a last minute change of plans. Since our original plans were to hike a mountain on this day, we decided we had had enough driving broken up by the occasional leg stretch and wanted to do some exploring. The rain was coming down steadily now but only lightly. We put on our shells, checked out the map board at the trailhead, and set off down the trail with my camera around my neck zipped in a plastic bag.

Stairway from overlook to Yellowstone Prong

Bridge over Yellowstone Prong

Small streams swollen by rainfall feeding the river

Looking upriver

Downstream toward the falls

Our plan based on the map was to follow the Yellowstone Prong to Second Falls then follow it back upstream through Graveyard Fields to Upper Falls. The paved path down to the river wound through a dense stand of rhododendron before reaching a wooden bridge that crossed to a large boulder in the middle of Yellowstone Prong and from there to the bank on the other side. The view from here both upstream and downstream was beautiful and very wild feeling. At this point, though, the rain began to increase its intensity but we were still staying dry in our shells and the views were distracting us from the weather anyhow. We crossed the river and at the fork took the right trail which led us across a couple small streams and eventually down several wooden steps to the base of Second Falls. The falls were large, impressive, and well supplied with water. We hung around the base of the falls admiring and taking photos for a little while. Taking photos in what had become a steady hard rain was very difficult and involved my bending over to protect the camera as I removed it from its gallon Ziploc bag and then crouching down so Emily could hold the bag over the camera as I snapped the photos. Given the circumstances, I'm pretty impressed with how everything came out.

Small stream on the way to the base of Second Falls

Second Falls

E getting soaked

We retraced our steps back up the stairs to where we originally crossed the river but instead of crossing back to return to the car we decided we wanted to go to Upper Falls and follow the loop trail. So we continued straight and soon we entered Graveyard Fields which for the most part has just small brush and thick mounds of grasses for vegetation. The leaves here in the final weekend of September were just beginning to change further enhancing the beauty of this place. We hiked for a while trying to dodge flooded sections of the trail which became useless since our feet were soaked through by now anyways. We hiked and hiked but felt it was taking a long time to get to Upper Falls. Since the rain was now a legitimate downpour and we had no map, and thus no idea where Upper Falls should be, we decided to turn back. Instead of returning to the original river crossing we took another bridge across making the loop. There were several people camping at this river crossing, all huddled in their tents reading or playing cards. The rain was coming down very hard now and hiking through the dense low-growth made it seem like night was coming upon us. We got back to the car and took off our shells which it turns out did little to keep us dry as we were soaked from head to toe. The rain continued to fall at this heavy rate for the rest of our drive to Waynesville so needless to say, we made no more stops on the BRP. Despite how soaked we got, though, Graveyard Fields was amazing and one of my favorite parts of the trip (we drove from Asheville to Grandfather Mountain on the BRP the next day), and I hope to return there someday in better weather.

View back up to the BRP

Entering Graveyard Fields